The Weight-Gain Diabetes Connection (+5 Tips!)

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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The Weight-Gain Diabetes Connection (+5 Tips!)

You may be familiar with the term “diabetes.” Maybe you or someone you know have been diagnosed with it. What you may not know is that the reality and reach of diabetes is greater than most people realize. In some cases, it’s even preventable, and weight loss has a lot to do with it.

Before we go on, let’s slay a pet peeve—this article is about Type 2 diabetes, not Type 1. What’s the difference? Type 1 diabetes is an an autoimmune disorder, and isn’t preventable. It happens when the body’s own immune system destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. About 5-10% of those with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes while a whopping 90-95% have Type 2 diabetes.


This form of diabetes is more commonly diagnosed in adulthood, but can happen at any age. It occurs when the pancreas produces great amounts of insulin, but the body just doesn’t respond to it. The cells become resistant to it’s own insulin, which is why we have terms like “insulin resistance.” This begins to cause problems over time.

The breakdown in our body’s ability to use insulin has profound effects on our metabolism. Namely, it affects our ability to absorb glucose – a major source of energy that comes from eating carbohydrate-rich foods. When you eat a slice of bread, the carbohydrates get digested into glucose (and other nutrients), then sent into the bloodstream so it can reach other tissues that need it. Normally, glucose can’t be absorbed on its own. It needs insulin as a helper hormone to open cell walls allowing it to pass through.

Think of insulin as a gatekeeper. When our body doesn’t use insulin properly glucose starts to accumulate and build up in the blood. Over time, this accumulation in the blood can damage nerve and blood vessels, eventually leading to diabetes. Cells stop responding to the “gatekeeper,” and the body overcompensates by making more and more ineffective insulin.  These insulin-making cells eventually wear out and stop working altogether, resulting in full-onset Type 2 diabetes. The process can take years to develop – and often remains unnoticed.

Here are the scary statistics: Of the 29.1 million people living with diabetes in 2012, 8.1 million were undiagnosed–that’s almost a third! Additionally, about 86 million Americans age 20 and older had Prediabetes  – a condition that involves consistently high glucose levels, putting certain individuals at increased risk of developing type II diabetes – up 9% in just 2 years.   


While there are many risk factors for Type 2 diabetes (including age, genetics, stress, ethnicity, pregnancy, and even certain medications that elevate blood sugars), the most directly related risk factor is overweight and obesity. On the flipside, this is good news because that means you can trim down your risk by adopting a healthier lifestyle. In fact, experts agree that Type 2 diabetes can be highly controlled through changes in diet and physical activity.

The Nurses Health Study of over 85,000 nurses found that women who had a BMI of less than 25, followed a healthy diet, and exercised regularly (at least 30 minutes per day), were a whopping 90% less likely to have developed diabetes over a 16-year period.  Similarly, the Diabetes Prevention Program, a clinical research study with over 3,200 participants from all over the United States, showed that even a small amount of weight loss (think: 5–7% of total body weight) helped either delay or prevent onset of the disease. Participants placed in the weight loss group had 58% fewer cases of diabetes over the course of 3 years.


Developing healthy habits are key to keeping Type 2 diabetes in check. Below are 5 tips that can help. You may already be practicing some of these. If so, keep up the great work!

1. Eat more whole grains.

Whole-grains are come naturally packaged with protein and fiber – nutrients that help keep blood sugars more balanced and steady. Whole grain foods take much longer to absorb, which fill us up faster, and keep us full longer. Refined carbohydrates (think: white flour and sugar) are absorbed quickly and force the body to work harder, leaving us tired and hungry more often.

2. Cut back on added sugars.

Added sugars have little to no added benefits in food, only empty calories. The average American consumes an average of 350 calories per day from added sugar! Over time, this can add up and significantly contribute to weight gain. Unlike naturally occurring sugars, found in fruit and dairy, added sugars are more quickly metabolized and used for energy by the body – leading to a more rapid rise in blood sugar.  The cumulative effect of these added sugars has been linked to heart disease, type II diabetes, and weight gain. To cut back on added sugar, eat less sweet treats, candy, sugary beverages, and many processed foods.

3. Choose heart-healthy fats.

They type of fats you choose to consume may also influence glucose metabolism. A 2009 Harvard study found that a diet rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats (such as those found in seafood, nuts, and plant-based oils) has beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity and may even reduce the risk of type II diabetes.

4. Drink more water.

Juices, sports drinks, soft drinks and specialty coffees (like your fall favorite, pumpkin-spice latte) are often loaded with added sugars. Stick to water for rehydration – you’ll not only get less added calories and sugar, but you’ll feel better and more energetic by staying hydrated.

5. Move more.

The benefits of regular exercise are no secret, but it’s effect on those at risk for Type 2 diabetes is especially noteworthy. Both cardiovascular exercises as well as strength training help manage blood glucose levels and play a major role in the prevention and control of insulin resistance.  During exercise, muscle contractions increase your cell’s ability to take in glucose and use it for energy, regardless of whether or not insulin is available. Aim for about 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, or just 30 minutes per day for benefits.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.


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